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Caster Semenya’s story highlights the fallacies of anti-trans sports bans

A tension between fairness and the right to participate is at the heart of the controversy over gender and sports.
Caster Semenya during the 2023 World Cross Country Championships
Caster Semenya during the 2023 World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst, Australia, on Feb. 18.Cameron Spencer / Getty Images file

Few athletes have found themselves at the center of the public debate over gender in sports as much as Caster Semenya, an Olympic champion middle-distance runner from South Africa. In 2009, Semenya’s gender was questioned by several of her competitors, which kicked off a targeted media campaign that resulted in the World Athletics governing body banning her from her best events because she was born with differences in sex development (DSD). Semenya, like other athletes with DSD, was subjected to horrific and invasive sex testing, a very old and cruel practice performed by athletics organizations.

Semenya’s case has been an egregious example of how zealously sporting organizations have taken to enforcing traditional ideas of sex and gender.

Semenya’s case has been an egregious example of how zealously sporting organizations have taken to enforcing traditional ideas of sex and gender. Thankfully, she’s out with a new book, “The Race to Be Myself: A Memoir,” and finally telling her story herself.

“I was only eighteen years old and had been subjected to invasive and humiliating gender confirmation tests without my consent just prior to the race,” she wrote in her book. “What followed was a media firestorm that continues to this day.”

To understand the Caster Semenya story, first you have to understand some basics. First, Semenya is not a trans woman like, for example, collegiate swimmer Lia Thomas. Semenya was assigned female at birth and was raised as a girl. It wasn’t until after she found success in middle-distance running events in international track and field competitions that her gender was questioned.

Semenya has 5-α-reductase 2 deficiency, an intersex condition that caused her internal sex organs not to fully masculinize when she was in the womb.?However, Semenya rejects the intersex label and prefers to call herself “a different kind of woman.”

Secondly, Semanya is Black, and you can’t easily separate her race from this controversy.?White European competitors were the first to question her gender based on what they deemed her nonfeminine appearance. “These kind of people should not run with us,” said one of Semenya’s competitors, Italian runner Elisa Cusma. “For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.”

Even Time magazine got in on the action, running a headline that read, “Could This Women’s World Champ Be a Man,” in an article published in 2009.

It’s hard for me to imagine Semenya being persecuted to such an extent if she were white.

It’s hard for me to imagine Semenya being persecuted to such an extent if she were white. She herself has said the rules target African women.

You could look at Semenya’s XY chromosomes (the details of which we only know about because an anonymous source with access to her World Athletics sex testing results leaked them to the press) and decide that she’s really a man and shouldn’t?compete against other women. But you should probably look more deeply at the process that resulted in her being barred from competing in her favorite event.

Under World Athletics rules, which were written specifically in response to her case,?people with DSDs like Semenya are considered female in 100-meter and 200-meter races, male in the 400 to 1500-meter races, and female again for any races longer than that. Semenya runs the 800. That middle distance is what makes her a male according to World Athletics rules. They’d only consider her female if she ran sprints or long-distance races. It is one of the more absurd policies ever to be implemented in any sport.

If Semenya wants to compete in any of her best events, World Athletics has said, she’ll have to take a testosterone suppressant. Semenya’s response to that has been?“hell no!”

“I’ll always run 800 meters,” she told Al Jazeera in 2019. “The 800 meters is my calling, I believe in it. I can’t be forced to switch races. I’ll switch when I want to switch races. No man can tell me what to do.”

The rule is so convoluted because it had to comply with a previous ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that said sports organizations could not have a blanket rule requiring all athletes with a DSD to take a testosterone suppressant. Instead, in order to justify the policy, World Athletics presented heavily criticized evidence that athletes with a DSD only have an advantage in middle-distance events.

Critics are right to accuse the organization’s nonsensical policy of singling out Semenya’s best events.

Critics are right to accuse the organization’s nonsensical policy of singling out Semenya’s best events.

To repeat, Semenya isn’t trans. But at the heart of the controversy over gender and sports, whether it involves her or trans athletes, is the tension between what is perceived as fair and the right of all human beings to participate in organized sports.

Competitive sports have many upsides for growing as an individual. Personally, I found my competitive edge and work ethic through growing up in and around sports. I even got my degree in sports management. It has had a huge influence in shaping who I am today. But making me choose between my sports and my gender identity would have been too much for my younger self to handle.

Where do you draw the line on these issues? If you force anyone who is legally a woman but doesn’t fit the traditional sense of what a so-called “biological woman” is into men’s sports, then they simply choose not to play, or more likely someone chooses not to let them compete.

Creating third-gender categories within sports has already fallen flat, as well. Is it worth it to drive whole groups of human beings away from the verified benefits and opportunities presented by organized sports just so the traditional idea of womanhood can be enforced?

The sports-and-gender question has embedded itself in U.S. politics of late. While intersex individuals like Semenya are often overlooked in conservative legislation attempting to regulate who is considered a woman in sports, they nonetheless find themselves in the gender wars crossfire.

The sports-and-gender question has embedded itself in U.S. politics.

Conservatives are craving a precedent that allows them to label trans women — and anyone else they don’t consider to be “real women” — as men under the law. The larger sports-gender debate has fully opened the door for their attacks.

I worry about the knock-on effects of continuously making official womanhood narrower and narrower. For example, women with polycystic ovary syndrome can have similar levels of testosterone to someone with a DSD. Should we now declare these women to be men? Ask yourself where this stops.

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